How does one find the words?
When I first started my blog, this was the entry I couldn't wait to write. The entry where I thought I would have a million things to say. I thought I'd be able to break down this insanely complex series of events into understandable stages and give everyone back home a greater sense of what took place here from 1992-1995. I thought I'd be able to tell of all of these ways modern day Bosnia is dealing with the war, moving forward, and progressing.
I mean one of my main reasons for coming to Bosnia this summer was to study the war, why shouldn't I be excited to give a small taste of what I had learned? I spent all last semester studying and reading about events such as Srebrenica, the siege of Sarajevo, ethnic concentration camps (set up by all sides, not just Serbs), the rape camps, and the other countless atrocities that ravaged this country less than 20 year ago. Now I was finally getting a chance to study this firsthand. To talk with survivors, hear their stories, and see the very places so many of the books I read talked about. I was going to have so much to tell everyone.
As I come to the end of my time here, it's finally my chance to take on this topic and well it turns out I do have a million things to say with this post. They were just none of the things I thought I would have to say two months ago.
I fell into the same trap that so many political scientists (or aspiring ones) far too easily fall into. I came to a country thinking I could study it and its people. Thinking it would be like opening a textbook (an awesome one with really cool pictures, interactive lessons, riveting text and a nice shiny price tag as well). That I would be able to learn the lessons it contained and simply close the book, opening it when I needed another source or an example for my paper for something. But the rest of the time letting it sit on my shelf as I went along with my life.
Ha. How could I have ever been so wrong?
Did I think I could spend every day traveling on a tram system which became a portable death trap as snipers unleashed fire from the hills on the trapped riders and not wonder what if that was me? Did I think I could look out at the Holiday Inn from my bedroom window every day, the scene of the first shots of the war (depending on who's telling the story) without picturing the chaos of the bullets raining down on innocent men, women, and children? Did I think I could walk over the Sarajevo Roses every time I went to Old Town and not think about the lost lives that they represented? Did I think I could look up into the beautiful mountains surrounding my Balkan home and not think about the fact that no one can climb them because of the over 1,000,000 landmines (conservative estimate from the BiH Mine Action Center, CONSERVATIVE estimate) that still litter the hills and continue to claim lives today?
To be honest, I think I did. Or more accurately, I don't think I thought about these questions at all. When one reads about all of these things it makes one numb. It doesn't sink in; it's not something that we can put ourselves into. It is simply something that happened a long time ago, to a people we know little about, in a country that the majority of the world can't even point to on a map.
But during my time here, I have been incredibly blessed with how much people are willing to open up to me. Over the course of collecting interviews for my thesis and talking with those around me, I have learned more about this conflict than I ever could have expected. I have had survivors look me in the eye and try to explain to me what it’s like to watch as everything you knew and grew up with goes to hell in front of your eyes. I have heard stories of what it is like to have one’s body so ridden with bullets that doctors put you in the hospital hallway and hope for you to die quickly so that they can use the stretcher you’re lying on. I have been asked if I can imagine what it would be like to have my whole family and I assaulted and attacked by people I had known and trusted my whole life. To have the body of one your best friends still be missing almost 20 years later. They have trusted me with their stories and opened up the places in their memories that many would much rather prefer to forget.
They have shown me that this wasn’t some war that happened long ago in a faraway place. It’s a war that happened in my life time, to people the age I am now (and all other ages, but most of the people I have interviewed were late teens through early 20s during the war which gives a new level of resonance to their stories), in the places I inhabit every day.
As I turn to the research articles I will use in my papers, it’s impossible to read them as I did before. The bodies buried each year at Srebrenica (409 this year. 409 individuals buried in green mesh coffins that force the living to not kid themselves that a complete intact body is being buried, but to remember that just a bone or two is all that our most advanced technology could find. 409 people who’s loved ones have been left without closure for the past 18 years, who are now considered the lucky ones due to the 1000 still remaining missing) are no longer nameless remains, they are the family members of my co-workers. No longer can I look at the photos of the bombed out buildings of the Sarajevo without picturing them as they are today when I walk past them daily. No longer can I stand in buildings and run my fingers over walls that are so riddled with bullet holes that literally there is more surface area missing than remains and not think about that each of those bullets were meant to kill. To destroy a mother, father, son, or daughter who had done nothing wrong other than be born the wrong religion or live in the wrong part of town. No longer is the war
abstract. It is personal, it is real, and it is still being felt, every single day.
But in addition to struggling with how to process how real the war is and reminding myself that when I write about it, it is essential that I not lose the human aspect, there is a whole other level to talking and writing about the war that I had never considered. And that is how do you tell people about the war and about Bosnia without making conflict and violence all you tell people about.
Which seems so hypocritical considering what I just spent the last two pages doing. But it is essential that people are given enough facts, stories, and illustrations for the war to become real. For something to resonate and make one take a second to reflect. To realize that this was not just the work of ˝evil˝ people or a few depraved individuals but something that every person is capable of if placed in the same situation, facing the same pressures, and given the same choices. Something to make the lessons of the war stick. Otherwise the next part I dive into makes it far too easy to forget what the country has suffered and leave it on the pages of history books
So with that disclaimer, the other reality that I had not spent more than a few minutes considering before coming here is how hard Bosnia is that when one thinks of Bosnia, it is essential to not just think of the war. Which is like asking people to balance on a two centimeter wide tightrope over the Grand Canyon or something. It’s asking people to look at the country, see the scars of the war, feel the pain, understand the reality of what it means, but then also keep all of that in mind while at the same time focusing on all the good things Bosnia is working towards. But you can never let your focus on one overweigh the otherwise you go tumbling down into the abyss. It’s an almost impossible line to walk. And one that I particularly struggle with. I’m either so focused on the war or so focused on the future, that one always seems to be getting lost.
Bosnia is trying to move forward from the war. There are organizations like KULT (bias alert), Ekomozaik, Nešto Više, Perpetuum Mobile and so many others that are working to move on. They are trying to bring together youth from ethnic groups that society tried so hard to pull apart, to empower the next generation of political leaders to see themselves as Bosnian Herzegovinians rather than Croats, Serbs, or Bosniaks, to develop the potential in all of Bosnia so that its future may be brighter than its past. And they’re making progress. Throughout my time here I have seen youth come alive with excitement when they realize people care what they have to say, I have seen the country band together (regardless of ethnicity) for a common cause such as the JMBG movement, and I have seen the amazing individuals working to foster all of this. And I have immense hope to see where this country will go with its future.
But it will take time. The lessons and pain of the war are still far too recent to be forgotten and swept under the rug. Nor should they be in my opinion. Hiding the bad parts of the past does no service to the future.
For me, my relationship with the war is a funny thing. It’s something that fascinates me, has taught me a great deal, and is something that will stay with me throughout the rest of my thesis process (and no doubt my life). But at the same time it is something that at times I wish would simply vanish into the past so that Bosnia would be known to the world as something more and something different than a country marred by a violent past. Or that when I tell people about here, it’s not the first thing that comes to their minds.
So this blog post was not what I thought it would be when I started out. I didn't teach you about the difference between Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. I didn't break down the leaders or the ˝bad˝ guys (not like that's even an option with this conflict) or the major battles and sieges. I didn't give you something you can take back to your history classes and impress people with your knowledge of. But I hope it reminded you that next time you hear about a conflict, be it Darfur, Syria, the Congo, or the countless others currently taking place, and you hear about the casualty count, or the taking of a city or whatever else our news deems worthy of announcing to the world, that those aren't just numbers on a screen in faraway places. Don't make the mistake I did by thinking they are facts in an article of figures on a graph and distance yourself from the fact that they are real people like you and me that are watching their lives burn before their very eyes.